In an era of growing cultural and religious diversity, and transnationalism how can one faithfully adhere to a particular religious leader’s teachings and even propagate them without trampling on others’ religious and cultural beliefs and practices? In other words, how can faithful discipleship accommodate or at least co-exist with cultural and religious differences? This is a perennial question that calls for new answers. Since the days of Jesus when radical distinctions between Jews and gentiles existed and continuing through the present; exclusivism and intolerance characterize the relationships that exist among many followers of different religious leaders worldwide. Racism, bigotry, and all sorts of injustices still parade under the guise of religious beliefs and practices.
What this reflection aims to do is present the concept of discipleship within the framework of a journey. Both as metaphysical and sociological construct, a journey provides a broader understanding of followership: one that allows for the interaction among disciples/devotees and other persons besides their leaders and their teachings, and also exposes them to other places and traditions. Focusing on Jesus’ journey with his disciples, particularly as seen in Luke 9:51–62, I organize my thoughts around three main points: (a) Discipleship as a Journey (b) Jesus and His Disciples (through the lens of Luke’s gospel) (c) Suggestions for Us Today.
Discipleship as a Journey:
The prominent motif of discipleship in both the Eastern and Western worlds is a student who studies and follows the teachings of a master, teacher, or leader. It involves calling and sending. In Christianity, discipleship is largely reflective of Jesus’ “assertion of moral authority.”1 It focuses on obedience and personal loyalty to Jesus as well as the imitation of him. While this motif is helpful, its singular emphasis leaves unexplored other helpful images found in the bible. One such image is discipleship as journey. At its core, discipleship is a journey. As a journey, it’s goal is not only to make the disciple be like, but also be with one’s teacher or leader. Considering discipleship as a journey makes one focus less on both the student and the teacher and more on the encounters and interactions that influence the beliefs and actions of both the disciple and the teacher. Viewed through the lens of a journey then, discipleship becomes not only a moral and spiritual quest but also a socialization process.
A physical journey brings one into contact with new places, new people, and new perspectives. As has been noted by some sociologists, a place is not merely a geographical location, but perhaps more important, it provides meaning—meaning created through a sense of identity, community, historical significance, familiarity and strangeness, and the feeling of being an insider and outsider at the same time.2 On a journey, the traveler meets many different people: some, such as tour guides, whose expertise s/he may have to rely on, as well as others who may need his or her insights. One could meet people who may be helpers or hindrances. S/He may also encounter both those who need and those who provide support. Such encounters have the potential of creating conflicts and/or conversations. Where meaningful conversations are engaged in, new ideas and perspectives may be generated.
Jesus and His Disciples
The four gospels are replete with Jesus’ call to discipleship. He calls people with different social, economic, and professional backgrounds to follow him (Mk 1:17; 2:14; Matt 4:18; Luke 9:59; John 1:43), to become “fishers of men” (Matt 4:19), to take up their cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24), to sell possessions and give to the poor and then follow him (Matthew 19:21). The call to “follow” was always a call to begin a physical as well as a spiritual journey with Jesus.
Luke 9:51–19:27 presents a “travel narrative”3 of Jesus and his disciples. It gives an account of Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem, a trip that would culminate in his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Jesus, Luke says, “set his face towards Jerusalem.” He was determined to go to Jerusalem to “speak truth to power” in spite of the looming consequence of death. As Jesus journeys to Jerusalem, he passes through Samaria. He had earlier sent messengers–a kind of advanced security team—to clear the way. The shortest but most dangerous route from Galilee to Jerusalem was through Samaria. Many if not all Jews avoided it because of the enmity between Jews and the Samaritans (John 4: 9). We learn from biblical and other historical sources that the enmity between the two was long standing and deep. The Samaritans have always tried to prevent the Jews from passing through their territory—sometimes through violence. Yet Jesus chose to pass through Samaria. And as should be expected, he was not welcomed. James and John, Jesus’ disciples angry at such a rejection of their master, sought permission to call fire from heaven to burn the Samaritans. Jesus sternly rebuked them (Luke 9:55).4
Two quick points need to be made here. First, Jesus is the initiator of the journey, not his disciples. By implication, if we choose to follow Jesus, or better still, if we respond to Jesus’ call to follow, we must understand that it is Jesus’ journey to which we have been invited—not the other way round. Second, it certainly might have appeared dangerous and ridiculous to Jesus’ disciples and other Jews that Jesus would go through Samaria. But Jesus knew what he was doing–he was not merely looking for a shortcut to Jerusalem. Rather, he was on a difficult path of reconciliation; he was extending an olive branch—a hand of friendship to the Samaritans—the supposed enemies of the Jews.
As they journey towards Jerusalem, Jesus and the disciples meet three would-be disciples. Jesus extends an invitation to one of them, and two volunteer to follow him. In response to them, Jesus spells out the harsh realities of being his disciple. To one he says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58) and to another who wanted to say farewell to his family, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God “(Luke 9:62). When the one Jesus had invited to follow seeks permission to go and bury his father first, Jesus’ response is “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”(Luke 9:60) All three responses seem inconsiderate but they say to us, discipleship is costly; whoever wants to be a disciple of Jesus must look well before s/he leaps; follow, not wallow (in memories or indulgences); focus on the journey with Jesus not fret ( about cultural obligations).
Suggestions for Today
Our world today is obviously much different and more complicated than the ones lived in by the founders of many of the world’s major religions. Among other things, (a) we live in a world with a high level of transnationalization. Persons and institutions have become more and more embedded in two or more nations or cultures at the same time and people move from one continent to another with ease and speed. (b)Technology, particularly social media, have hugely taken over the socialization process of the youth; virtual sites are the favorite places where people “hang out,” learn, play, share ideas, and socialize remotely, (c) there are changes in demographics in several neighborhoods due to migration, urbanization, and gentrification. Neighborhoods—particularly in cities—have over the last 30 years become more and more culturally diverse; (d) all around us is religious diversity: the American religious landscape, for instance, now shows a plethora of world religions in contrast to the 1950’s when Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were the main religious groups. One can find every conceivable religious group in the New York City for instance, (e) there is a growing lack of interest in organized religion and focus on individual spirituality. Some people have become disenchanted with the institutional confinement of religious groups.
This is the context within which we who are Christians have been called to be Jesus’ disciples. The question then is, “what lessons from Jesus’ journey with his disciples will guide us for this task?”
Let’s consider the following:
(a) Jesus’ call to us is a call to follow his footsteps on a circuitous and rugged road;
(b) It is a call to be patient and tolerant with others who disagree with us. If we follow Christ we must always remember that we will have to travel in “unwelcoming territory.” We shall meet unwelcoming people. Often they are not enemies but simply people who disagree with us;
(c) It is a call that requires constant attention and unflinching focus. Our call is to a tough ride, full of uncertainties, requiring focus and reliance on God’s guidance, providence, and sustenance.
(d) By going through Samaria, Jesus modeled for us the principle of going a different way— a way outside of our comfort and security; a way contrary to cultural norms and old ways of reasoning and doing things that hinder progress.
(e) Perhaps most important, Jesus calls us to seek conversion through conversation, not through compulsion and conflict.
The Akans of Ghana have a proverb which can loosely be translated, “You send a wise person (on an important mission), not a long-legged person.”5 What the proverb refers to as wisdom is perception, discernment, knowledge, improvisation, and the ability to understand and communicate cross-culturally.
Jesus requires us to have this wisdom as we continue on the journey of discipleship.
1. Hastings, Adrian “Discipleship” in Adrian Hastings, et. al. eds. The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 169.
2. Orum, Anthony and Xiang Ming Chen, The World of Cities: Comparative and Historical Perspectives, (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003) 1–26; Also, Gieryn Thomas F. “ A Space for Place in Sociology” in Annual Review of Sociology Vol. 26: 463–496 ( August 2000)
3. Birch C. Bruce et. al. eds. The Discipleship Study Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 1803.
4. This request alludes to the story of Ahaziah, in 1 Kings 22:51.
5. Opoku, Kofi Asare, Hearing and Keeping, (Accra, Ghana: Asempa Publishers, 1997) 71.
By Rev. Moses Biney
The Rev. Dr. Moses O. Biney is Assistant Professor of Religion and Society, and Research Director for the Center for the Study and Practice of Urban Religion at New York Theological Seminary. He is also the Interim Pastor for Bethel Presbyterian Reformed Church in Brooklyn, NY. Dr. Biney is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary where he earned both the Th. M. and the Ph. D in Social Ethics. He has served on the faculty of the University of Ghana and as an adjunct professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Dr. Biney’s research and teaching interests include the religions of Africa and the African Diaspora, religion and transnationalism, religion and culture, and congregational studies. He is the author of From Africa to America: Religion and Adaptation among Ghanaian Immigrants in New York.